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The backstory: The Wagner Group is a mercenary group founded in 2014 and led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was once considered an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He even had the nickname “Putin’s chef” since he owned catering companies that serviced the Kremlin. Wagner has been crucial in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was majorly involved in capturing the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut for Russia and has also participated in conflicts in Syria and Africa.
Prigozhin recruited tens of thousands of fighters from Russian jails to boost troop numbers in the Ukraine war by offering them pardons in exchange for fighting. It’s unclear how many troops Wagner had throughout the war, but some estimates say it may have been around 50,000. Other estimates say around 20,000 of those have been killed in the war. In recent months, Prigozhin publicly criticized Russia’s Defense Ministry, saying it wasn’t supplying enough ammunition to Wagner and was responsible for the high number of casualties. He also threatened to pull his men out of the war.
More recently: Early in June, Russia’s Ministry of Defense ordered Wagner troops to sign contracts with the country’s military, which Prigozhin refused. This would have put Wagner under the direction of the Russian military. Not long after, Prigozhin started a rebellion against the Russian Defense. He said officials in the Defense Ministry didn’t know what they were doing when it came to military operations and they should be removed. Wagner troops began advancing toward Moscow with the intention of ousting some of the Defense Ministry leaders. Prigozhin said that he still supported Putin and was a patriot, but on a global scale, the situation was seen by many as a coup attempt. Wagner quickly captured Rostov-on-Don and took control of the Southern Military District headquarters on June 24. The same day, Putin addressed the nation and called Wagner’s actions “treason.”
But the rebellion ended quickly, with Russia negotiating for Prigozhin and his troops to withdraw, saying charges against them would be dropped if they relocated to Belarus. Wagner members who didn’t participate in the rebellion were told they could enlist in the Russian military instead. After this whole situation, Prigozhin was a bit hard to track down and kept out of the public eye for the most part.
On August 22, for the first time since the failed mutiny, Prigozhin surfaced to the public in a video address where he said the Wagner Group would be focusing its efforts in Africa. He’d also recently offered the group’s services to coup leaders in Niger. But following his statement of support for the ongoing Niger coup, the Kremlin called the situation in Niger a “cause for serious concern” and urged coup leaders to return the country to legal order.
The development: On Wednesday, news surfaced that a private plane flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg crashed, killing all 10 people on board. Russia’s civil aviation regulator has said Prigozhin was on the manifest and is believed to be dead. The news comes on the same day that senior Russian general Sergei Surovikin, an ally of Prigozhin, was removed as the air force chief. Suovikin hasn’t been seen in public since the day of the Wagner rebellion, so there’s a lot of speculation flying around about his situation, with many saying he’s been interrogated, detained and even jailed.
One Russian official, Vladimir Rogov, said that Wagner troops confirmed that Prigozhin was on the flight. But Keir Giles, a Russia expert with international think-tank Chatham House, said several people since the rebellion had changed their name to Yevgeniy Prigozhin so that the Wagner leader’s movements were harder to track. So, Giles isn’t so sure if it’s really Wagner’s Prigozhin that was on the plane. US President Joe Biden said he was "not surprised" by the news.
Videos posted by the pro-Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone show the plane dropping suddenly from the sky, and a frame-by-frame analysis done by the AP suggests there was some sort of explosion that took the plane down.
“An investigation of the Embraer plane crash that happened in the Tver Region this evening was initiated,” the Federal Agency for Air Transport of Russia said in a statement, according to the state news agency Tass. “According to the passenger list, first and last name of Yevgeny Prigozhin was included in this list.”
“We have seen the reports. If confirmed, no one should be surprised,” said US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson in a statement.
“Multiple individuals have changed their name to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, as part of his efforts to obfuscate his travels,” said Keir Giles, a Russia expert with international affairs think-tank Chatham House. “Let’s not be surprised if he pops up shortly in a new video from Africa.”
“Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold,” said US CIA director William Burns in Colorado last month. “So he’s going to try to settle the situation to the extent he can. But, again, in my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback. So I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this.”
“There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind,” said US President Joe Biden when asked if he thought Russian President Putin had anything to do with the plane crash. “But I don’t know enough to know the answer.”